ELMONT, N.Y. -- Usually, it's quite easy to make trainer Christophe Clement nervous. But when it comes to his elite turf horse Gio Ponti, it's next to impossible to make him fret.
So the fact Gio Ponti is attempting 1 1/2 miles for the first time in Saturday's Grade 1 Joe Hirsch Turf Classic Invitational over a potentially soft Widener turf course at Belmont Park didn't exactly have Clement shaking in his boots Thursday morning.
"You're more concerned about it than I am," Clement said to a questioner going over the potential pitfalls awaiting Gio Ponti in the $600,000 Joe Hirsch.
Actually, Clement did enter Winchester in the Joe Hirsch as a back-up, just in case forecasted rains turn the Belmont turf course into a bog. Clement named Ramon Dominguez on both, so only one will run. In all, nine were entered in the Joe Hirsch, but fewer than that will start.
Trainer Mary Hartmann entered the speedy Presious Passion, but said she would not run him over soft ground. Hartmann expects that to be the case and has said the Clement Hirsch at Santa Anita next weekend is the back-up plan.
Provided he's happy with the turf, Clement has no reason to be anything but confident in Gio Ponti. The leading turf horse in North America, he has won four consecutive Grade 1 races from a mile in Southern California to 1 3/8 miles at Belmont to, most recently, 1 1/4 miles at Arlington Park in the Arlington Million.
"He's an amazing horse," Clement said of the 4-year-old colt, who has won 8 of 12 starts on turf and 9 of 14 overall.
Following the Arlington Million, Clement gave Gio Ponti some down time, not breezing him for five weeks. Clement said he wanted a fresh horse for a fall campaign that includes this race and the Breeders' Cup -- either the Classic on Pro-Ride or the Turf.
"He's extremely fresh, he's extremely happy. He has always done better in colder weather," Clement said on a cool, autumn morning.
Dominguez, who has been aboard Gio Ponti for three of his four Grade 1 victories this year, echoes Clement in that he has no concerns about distance or course condition. In fact, when Dominguez rode Gio Ponti to an eighth-place finish in the 2007 Breeders' Cup Juvenile Turf - he was beaten only four lengths - the turf course was a bog. Dominguez said the horse handled that course fine and it was just traffic that got him beat.
"He doesn't really care," Dominguez said.
Dominguez noted that in the Arlington Million, Gio Ponti made the lead earlier than usual but "as usual he was there when I needed him."
Grand Couturier would appreciate a yielding turf course. He won the Joe Hirsch over such ground by 10 1/2 lengths last year and won last month's Bowling Green by two lengths over similar ground, his first win since the Joe Hirsch.
"It verified where we thought he was at," trainer Robert Ribaudo said. "We can look forward to a race like this and still feel we're in the ballgame. It was a confidence builder for both of us."
Ribaudo acknowledged that defeating Gio Ponti over any type of ground would be a tall order.
"He can handle anything," Ribaudo said. "The only edge we may have over him might be the distance."
If Presious Passion does not run, Musketier might become the main speed. He finished second to Gio Ponti in the Grade 1 Man o' War here in July.
Telling, who upset the Sword Dancer at Saratoga at odds of 33-1, ships back to New York for the Joe Hirsch. Trainer Steve Hobby is hoping the distance is a neutralizing factor between his horse and Gio Ponti.
"My horse is doing super. You couldn't ask for him to being any better," Hobby said. "I'd just as soon not have to run against Gio Ponti, but maybe it's a little far for him, maybe not."
Completing the field are Interpatation, second in this race last year; Al Khali, an improving 3-year-old; and Ready's Echo, third in the 2008 Belmont Stakes.